After many years of discussions and proof of concepts, network functions virtualization (NFV) is now moving away from the conceptual to the realization stage.

Some service providers have started rolling out NFV infrastructure platforms while some of these have already enabled their first NFV-enabled use cases and applications on top of these platforms.

Virtualizing the evolved packet core (EPC) and the Gi LAN is one of those use cases that has a lot of industry traction at the moment.

When deploying a virtual Gi LAN there are two fundamental questions that need to get answered. The first question is about consolidation: do we consolidate several Gi LAN functions in a single virtual network function (VNF) or do we completely decompose the Gi LAN architecture into many discrete VNFs?

The second question is about scale. How do we effectively scale out this architecture, as a single virtual machine may not provide sufficient capacity to handle the Gi LAN workload?

In order to secure and monetize their networks, mobile operators have been deploying many different technologies on the Gi LAN, including but not limited to TCP optimization, video optimization, header enrichment, deep packet inspection, Gi-firewalling and carrier-grade NAT (CGNAT).

Historically many of these functions were deployed on different platforms, often from different vendors. In the last few years, mobile operators have been consolidating and simplifying their Gi LAN architecture.

Through consolidation, mobile operators have been able to significantly reduce their total cost of ownership. When migrating this architecture to an NFV platform – which relies on common off-the-shelf hardware – there may be a temptation to start decomposing the architecture into different discrete VNFs, each dedicated to a single function.

This decomposed architecture certainly makes sense if the different Gi LAN functions are each applicable to a very specific subset of flows. Based on business policies via interaction with a Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF), an intelligent service classification engine that would sit at the entry of the Gi LAN can determine which flows need to be steered and/or service-chained to particular functions that are deployed as separate VNFs. Those VNFs will then only have to process the traffic that they need to act upon, which results in a very efficient distribution of traffic across all the VNFs.

However, if Gi LAN functions need to be applied to almost all traffic then this decomposition of functions doesn't bring any value. Take TCP optimization and Gi firewalls as examples. Almost all Gi LAN traffic has to be processed by these two functions, so having them consolidated in a single VNF results in efficiency gains similar to a physical deployment.

Indeed, there is no need for an intelligent service classifier here to make a VNF selection and there is no hair-pinning in and out of the SDN layer to get traffic from one VNF to the next. Furthermore, adding a firewall function on top of a TCP optimization function adds very little CPU overhead, so the value of consolidation still applies in a NFV environment.

Another challenge is how to deal with workflows that are larger than what a single VNF can handle. Some vendors have taken the approach to allow a VNF to consist of many virtual machines (VMs). Most functions on the Gi LAN are stateful operations, which means the ingress and egress traffic for the same flows need to be processed on the same VM. As a result, if egress traffic arrives on a different VM that processed the ingress traffic, inter-VM communication is required to get traffic back to the right VM. This will obviously result in performance degradation.

At F5, we have chosen the approach by which a VNF is always deployed as a single VM and the scaling out of the architecture to multiple VMs becomes an external design factor. Different scale-out techniques are available, ranging from very simple to highly advanced.

A very simple scale-out architecture is based on IP-based traffic hashing across the different VMs such as equal cost multipath (ECMP). However, this technique has several drawbacks and is impractical for the majority of use cases on the Gi LAN. SDN-based approaches to control the distribution of traffic can avoid some of those ECMP limitations but the capabilities would still be somewhat limited and are very dependent on the chosen SDN player.

By far the most flexible and advanced approach to scale out any Gi LAN function that is totally independent from the underlying network and/or SDN, is provided by a stateless software-based load balancer (which is also deployed as VMs). The fact that it is stateless allows it to scale out almost indefinitely, as more VMs for stateless load balancing can be added without losing consistency of how traffic is distributed across the VMs providing the Gi LAN functions.

Based on the above, we believe it is very important for any mobile operator to carefully think about both the consolidation and the scale-out aspects when migrating their Gi LAN architecture from the physical to the virtual layer.